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World: Oliver Stone's 'Alexander' Stirs Up Controversy

American director Oliver Stone's latest movie, "Alexander," has been met with negative reviews from critics in the U.S. and Europe. The three-hour-long epic, which cost an estimated 150 million dollars to make, purports to show the life of Alexander the Great, who in less than a decade conquered much of the ancient world. But some complain the movie is riddled with historical inaccuracies. The epic has also stirred controversy by portraying Alexander's bisexuality.

Prague, 28 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Even before its release, Oliver Stone's film "Alexander" sparked controversy.

While a group of Greek lawyers wanted to take legal action against the movie because they were upset about suggestions in the film that Alexander was bisexual, campaigners for homosexual rights criticized Stone for not making Alexander openly gay.

Zoroastrian communities in the United States and Parsis in India got upset for different reasons. They noticed that in promos for the movie, the winged Zoroastrian symbol of Farohar or Fravahar was used in the background.

Zoroastrians know Alexander as "the Accursed" because during his conquest of the Persian Empire he burned Zoroastrian holy texts and scriptures.

Kaveh Farrokh is an expert on the history and linguistics of Persia, particularly in the pre-Islamic era.

"One of the reasons we don't know many aspects of Zoroastrian teachings is that people wrongly blamed it on the Arab invasion of the 7th century. In reality, we have to go back and look at Alexander's invasion, which was extremely destructive, and many of the 'magis,' the Zoroastrians priests, were killed," Farrokh says.

Maneck Bhujwala, a Zoroastrian priest based in the United States, told RFE/RL in an e-mail that Zubin Mehta -- an internationally renowned conductor of classical music and a member of India's Parsi community -- was able to talk directly with Stone and was able to get an agreement from Stone to stop the commercial.

Since the release of the movie, some historians have expressed surprise and regret that some key events of the time, such as Alexander's burning of the city of Persepolis, are overlooked.

There are different historical accounts about the arson. Some say Alexander instigated it in revenge for the destruction caused by Persians in Greece in the 5th century before Christ. Other say Alexander did it while he was drunk, on the encouragement of a woman.

Professor Robin Lane Fox, one of the world's top experts on Hellenic studies and author of a book on Alexander the Great, advised Stone on the movie. He says the epic drama has a "strong reference to history" and that including all the facts would have made the movie very long.

However, some experts say there are historical mistakes in the movie.

Farrokh says the portrayals of Persians and Greeks in the film are inaccurate. As an example, he mentions the battle of Gaugamela where Alexander the Great and his troops defeated the Persian army.
Since the release of the movie, some historians have expressed surprise and regret that some key events of the time, such as Alexander's burning of the city of Persepolis, are overlooked.

"Greek forces are typically shown very organized, disciplined, and so on, and what's very disturbing is when the so-called Persians are shown confronting the Greeks, you see them turbaned. Turbans are not even a Persian item, and flies are seen circling their heads at one point. Their armies are totally disorganized. What is not known is that the Persians actually had uniforms. They marched in discipline, and music was actually used -- trumpets and so on -- to allow them to march in disciplined rank," Farrokh says.

Farrokh believes Persian women are also inaccurately portrayed in the film.

In the movie, Alexander marries an Iranian woman, Roxanna, played by Rosario Dawson, who is black. Farrokh says having a black actress playing the role of Roxanna is like having Lucy Liu, an Asian American actress, portraying Queen Victoria of Britain.

"Roxanna itself is derived from old Iranian 'rokh-shwan' -- 'rokh' means profile, 'shwan' means shiny-faced or of fair complexion. The face mask that Roxanna wears is totally inaccurate," Farrokh says.

Some Iranians living in the United States staged protests against the movie, which they consider to be one-sided. But Mehdi Zokayi, chief editor of an Iranian magazine in Los Angeles, says the protests were ineffective.

"I think the protests were very dispersed and didn't last long. Some people, some media, wrote letters, e-mails and decided to show their protests. But since their actions was not correlated, it didn't draw any attention. Some boycotted the movie, but I think many went to see the movie out of curiosity," Zokayi says.

"Alexander" was first released in the United States late last year, where it earned a disappointing $34 million at the box office. It has been doing better since its foreign release earlier this month, earning some 90 million dollars so far.

In Iran, where most Western movies are banned, there is little chance that "Alexander the Great" will be shown in movie theaters.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.